Queen of the Bay
by John McShane
Published in The Scottish Field, August 1976
Summer is the time for storing memories to flash upon that inward eye which is the bliss of Wordsworthian solitude. A breathtaking plunge into the heaving Atlantic from a pillar of Cornish rock, perhaps. Rolling in the surf at Tel Aviv. Long cool drinks in burrows off Chester's Rows. The haunting sound of flamenco from a cypress grove near Cordoba. Basking in a heathery sun-trap by Loch Maree. Grapes that were ambrosia after the medicinal water at Merano before the coach took you on to Verona. Steering among Baltic isles while a long-lasting sun turned the torso from white to Viking gold. Or my favourite—cruising in the Kyles of Bute.
Don't get me wrong. Not for me week-ending before the mast. No sea-front nyaf ever flattered me with those pungent Clydeside queries—"Yaffayat? Whityatyaff?" The cruising I refer to was done in the motor launch Gay Queen, from its jetty near the Pavilion in Rothesay to the placid waters off Tighnabruaich.
As a result my inward eye sees a heron perched in a tree it seemed part of; seals on rocks in the Narrows; Terns, Curlews, Eiders, and Shelduck; a Seagull dropping shellfish from crossbar height to get a cracking good meal; the ineffable peace of the island with the tiny graveyard below Glen Caladh; the memorial on the shore at Colintraive built by the father of two sons killed in the war; darting dinghies from the sailing school with youngsters barely escaping a ducking in their determination to wave; the close-up at Ardyne of the Frigg field gas platform now in Loch Fyne, and the Cypriot flag on the vessel tied up nearby; the Maids of Bute petrified waiting for their sailor lads to return; and the trees at South Hall planted to represent the position of the British and French armies at Waterloo.
From which you may gather that I am an observant type. I cannot take credit that belongs to another, though. The observant type was the Gay Queen's skipper without whose choral commentary the trip would have been just another sail.
The Gay Queen with its motif of cream and signal red is a kenspeckle sight in the summer moored in the bay when it's not heading up or down the Kyles, skirting Cowal's shore, or doubling Bogany Point to open a vista of Mountstuart denied to road travellers. If you want to see it in the off-season you will find it slipped at Port-Bannatyne for overhaul of engines, hull and gear. You may also see that its captain-owner has slipped up to Glasgow to see a show. A couple of years ago Glen Daly, introducing personalities among the audience in the Glasgow Pavilion, announced the presence of Herbert McIver. This drew polite applause, but when Glen added, "Rothesay's Singing Skipper," there was a roar of recognition.
The singing of the skipper is no gimmick. If it hadn't been for the war he might have been a teacher of music in a Comprehensive, not the most enviable of jobs these days. He had done two years at the Athenaeum in Glasgw when the balloon went up. An attempt to folow his forbears into the Royal Navy failed, eyesight preventing acceptance for the Fleet Air Arm. He joined the Army. Passengers who point to the Inverkip chimney across the firth, contrasting it jocosely with Pisa's leaning tower, may be surprised at his uncharacteristically tart reaction. He lost some of his best friends at Pisa—needlessly, he maintains, convinced that orders had been given not to shell the tower which the Germans were using as an observation post. Back in Civvy Street, he was faced with a choice between completing his music course and cruising about the firth. He compromised between scales and sails by deciding to sing at the helm of the Gay Queen. Herbert is third in a line of McIvers given to messing about in boats around Bute. His great-great grandfather left Stornoway to join the Royal Navy from which he retired into the coastguard service near the Isle of Wight, where his grandfather, James, was born. James pursued a similar naval-coastguard career before retiring to Rothesay to start a boat-hiring business. That was in 1901, the year the dear old toast-rack trams first took the golden road from Guildford Square to Ettrick Bay. Herbert's father, Aidan, followed his father into the Royal Navy, coming out at the end of World War One after 13 years service. In partnership with Mr. G. Stewart he had a launch built at Port Bannatyne. The May Queen, capable of carrying 80 passengers, ran from the early 1920's till it was requisitioned in World War Two. Many a quinquagenerian must have pleasant recollections of childhood trips under its awning across to Toward. In 1937 Aidan, in partnership with Mr. J. Morris, acquired a second launch. Because it was bigger, carrying 130, it was built at Fraserburgh. It too was requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport in 1940 and is believed to have played a part in the Dunkirk evacuation. Its name was intended to be May Queen ll, but for some reason official permission was not forthcoming. The nearest alternative was Gay Queen and that name has been retained despite the fact that each word in the title has been misappropriated and debased. Sniggers are properly ignored as being beneath contempt. The Gay Queen began its post-war cruising in 1946 and has been going strong ever since, leaving a wake of some 25,000 miles and a host of trippers with pleasant memories. Herbert McIver is a master of his craft, and that does not mean just the Gay Queen. Years of interspersing steering and singing with pawky anecdote and reference to flowra and fauna have given him a fine sense of timing. He indicates the hillside above Ardbeg where holidaymaking Mrs. Craik come across a weeping servant girl who was fetching water from a spring. The authoress of "John Halifax Gentleman" put the girl's sad story into verse:-
O I had yince a true love, now I hae nane ava,That is the cue for a song. There are others. The Ayrshire hills across the firth suggest Burns and you hear "My love is like a Red Red Rose." Toward Lighthouse is the reminder that round the corner lies Innellan and the Bullwoodshore where Harry Lauder had a house and where, it's said, an effigy was placed near an upstairs window so that trippers could boast back home of the celebrity they had seen on holiday. Rising beyond is Ben Lomond which prompts the inevitable song with a commentary on the two Jacobites captured at Carlisle, one freed to go back home by the high road, the other's soul after his execution returning underground to his native land. After that sombre interlude you are uplifted by a jingle for the Gay Queen— "Ha, ha, ha, hee,hee, hee,little red boat, how I love thee!" As you return to the long wooden jetty you hear with awe that you have just crossed the fault line between Highlands and Lowlands, which explains why the rocks to the south are red and those to the north grey. You hear the parting chorus of "Good-bye-" from the wheelhouse. You have enjoyed the trip, and you have the pleasant feeling that the skipper has enjoyed it every bit as much.
Time has brought changes in Rothesay as elsewhere. No trams rocking along past the Skeoch Woods. No couthy camaraderie in the Winter Gardens with Charlie Kemble making a customer's day by working him or her into his impromptu choruses. No porters pointing. No melodeon at an al fresco pally on the prom above the Children's Corner. No landau for a circular tour via Kingarth. But, thank heaven, the Gay Queen sails gallantly on with the voice of the Singing Skipper coming across from Strone Point to the ears of strollers at Port Bannatyne, or up to golfers at Canada Hill as the launch glides in from Toward under Montford heights. The McIvers came to Bute in 1901. Herbert's only son, David, is a qualified electrician, but his aim is to carry on cruising. If he has his way there will still be a McIver sailing in and out of Rothesay Bay in 2001.
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